return to homepage

Archive for September 6th, 2009

The “Intermittent Wiper” Lesson For Creating Convergent Inventions

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

by: Geoff Ficke

This weekend my wife and I took in a movie. The film was preceded by a movie trailer touting a soon to be released production based on the invention of the “intermittent windshield wiper”. Such a topic for a big budget Hollywood movie would seem to be awfully mundane. However, the trailer was a very interesting glimpse of a subject that has deep meaning for every entrepreneur, inventor or dreamer.

Robert Kearns was a university professor and an engineer with a passion for tinkering. He had lost the sight in one eye when a champagne cork had popped squarely into his eye. In 1963, while driving in a heavy rainstorm he noticed that the steady, constant pace of the wiper blades sweeping water from the windshield caused his sight to lose focus.

At that time windshield wipers only worked at a single rate of speed. As mist, or light rain occurred the driver had to manually tune off and on the unit to control the speed of the blades. Kearns had stumbled into an opportunity to address a fairly basic, but needed improvement to an already existing automobile safety feature.

At home in his workshop, Mr. Kearns created a prototype of his “intermittent windshield wiper” system. Once perfected, he filed for patents and began to approach the major American car companies seeking to license his invention. He demonstrated the unit for Chrysler and Ford, and provided each with proprietary data on his device. After internal discussion both advised Robert Kearns that his device was of no interest and they would pass on the opportunity to license.

Much to Mr. Kearns shock and chagrin, he was amazed to discover that in 1969 the Ford Motor Company began to sell an “intermittent windshield wiper” as a featured accessory on their new models. The technology was remarkably similar to his prior art. Thus began a legal odyssey that would consume Robert Kearns life, his fortune and his health.

This is where this tale has ongoing importance to anyone seeking to commercialize a new product or invention. The invention of the original mechanized windshield wiper was the birth of a “divergent product”. The invention of the telephone, the television, the radio, or the internal combustion engine gave birth to “divergent products”. They created alpha opportunities. The addition of color to televisions, answering machines to telephones and clocks to radios are examples of “convergent products”. “Convergent products” are simple product enhancements that are often extremely valuable as wealth generators. Robert Kearns “intermittent windshield wiper” is a wonderful example of a “convergent product’.

He had not invented the windshield wiper but had created simple performance elements that motorists found would add safety, comfort and simplicity to driving in varied climatic conditions. Unfortunately, he had not fully insulated his invention from predatory commercial vultures.

Patent law is an extremely specific practice. There is a reason patent attorney’s typically handle no other categories of legal work. The Kearns vs. Ford Motor Company patent suit was arduous and tortured. The patent law principal of “obviousness” was the center of the dispute. Ford claimed that the Kearns invention was “obvious”, a device made up of pre-existing components. Simply put, Kearns argued that it was his organization of these elements that was truly novel and that his unit was not “obvious” until he invented it.

It took until 1995 for Robert Kearns to prevail. The case is considered a landmark. The instance of a single person taking on a huge, international corporate behemoth, and winning, was amazing, exciting and myth shattering. Ford paid Mr. Kearns $30 million. Robert Kearns spent $10 million on legal fees to fight the case to successful conclusion.

There are many lessons here for inventors seeking to commercialize their ideas and products.

• Protect your intellectual property
Utilize Non-Disclosure Agreements
Seek professional legal assistance to file patents, trademarks, copyright
File Trade Secrets
• Lay down a paper trail
Detail every meeting and phone call with a written re-cap to each
person attending
Save every dated receipt for FedEx, phone log, etc.
• Build a production quality, working prototype of the invention-DO NOT CUT CORNERS HERE!
• Include 3D Computer Assisted Design Art (CAD) with all legal filings
• Always assume that others are working on similar inventions and protect
your interests

We look at hundreds of inventions and new product submissions each year in our consulting business. A fair percentage of these presentations have real commercial value and could be successfully marketed. Most however, will never see a store shelf because the creator will not take appropriate steps to protect and commercialize their opportunity.

Robert Kearns did. He had a simple idea for a “convergent product”. He took appropriate steps to protect his invention. When he was ripped off, he took up the fight. Because of his success and courage, it is now much easier to fight and win against the “big guys”.

Each of us sees or experiences opportunities almost everyday, in our work or personal environment. Most of us aren’t paying attention or do not recognize opportunity when it appears. For the few that do, and have the courage to act, will be rewarded by a marketplace that craves new products and concepts.

I can not wait to see the movie.

…And We Want the Government to Do What?

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

by: Geoff Ficke

I am always amazed when I see well educated, seemingly worldly people make themselves look and sound silly by promoting ever more aggressive expansion of government. We are currently in our national election cycle, admittedly the silly season for politicians. This year, however, the “nanny state” prescriptions on offer seem particularly vacuous.

The one absolute I KNOW about government is this: Government is not in business to solve problems, government is in business to institutionalize problems!

Bureaucracies evolve to protect and expand their turf. All start with claims of the highest purpose. The perceived need to address some element of life that has been under-regulated or policed will be assigned to a phalanx of bureaucrats and we, the public, will be able to sleep much better as a result. Think about this fact and ask yourself: Where has a bureaucracy ever settled a problem, cured an injustice, or efficiently functioned.

Private enterprises, churches, charities and entrepreneurs live in a competitive maelstrom. They adapt to market realities or they die. Look at the original Dow Jones Industrial Average members from the early 20th century and ask, “where are they now”? General Motors, Ford Motor Company and Chrysler, behemoth international concerns, are in a real struggle for survival. Their conduct of affairs and changing business models will determine if they go the way of Montgomery Ward, Sharper Image, Wang Computer, American Motors and Bell and Howell and float off into that corporate graveyard in the sky.

The reason we enjoy the most advanced economic lifestyle in history is precisely because private enterprises can, and do fail. Not, however, government agencies and bureaucracies. They simply grow, bigger, fatter, more sluggish and flaccid. This relentless growth is accompanied by the continual whaling for more. More bureaucrats, more funding, more rules; just give us more and this time we will get the job done.

The economy is currently experiencing a cyclical softening. A study of economic history indicates that we go through something akin to this every seven or eight years. When the economy slows, tax receipts logically slow as well. What we get from government at all levels is the familiar bromide: “We are cut to the bone”!

No we are not. There is no government agency that can find the bone. The waste, fraud, program duplication, over-staffing and lack of productivity endemic in government at all levels is simply stupendous.

The government enjoys a monopoly in the running of mail delivery through the Post Office. It ain’t called snail mail for no reason. The service requires a subsidy each and every fiscal year to cover losses. If it were a business, it would be gone.

Marvin Runyan was the Postmaster General for President Jimmy Carter. The business model for what would become Federal Express was in the process of raising venture capital funding during his tenure. When asked about the concept of overnight package delivery from anywhere, to anywhere, with guaranteed next day delivery, Mr. Runyan commented: “It can’t be done”.

The perfect metaphor for government bureaucracy: “It can’t be done”!

The government must subsidize billions of dollars of losses each year for Amtrak. Passport processing is a national embarrassment. Medicare fraud is reported and confirmed to the tune of tens of billions of dollars each year. IRS computer systems, after massive spending, are archaic. The list of waste, corruption and ineptitude in government, at all levels is astounding.

We have a $9 trillion national current accounts debt. Far worse, we have a debt for Social Security and Medicare of somewhere (nobody can really calculate this accurately) north of $50 trillion! For a fraction of this level of mismanagement, managers of private enterprises are put in jail.

Whenever a city announces a public investment in building sports stadiums or museums you can count on the fact that the edifice will come in late and over budget. The same with any road project. The “Big Dig” in Boston, or the Los Angeles subway, were classic examples of incompetence and mismanagement.

Recently I visited my old parochial high school. While speaking with the Principal I noticed students unloading a truck and taking used desks into the school building. I commented about the desks, “where did they come from”? His reply: a neighboring public high school received a grant that they used to purchase new desks. “They offered them to us, or they would be thrown away. We will get another 20 years use out of them”. Maybe this is just one small anecdotal instance, but multiply this by millions of such irresponsible decisions and the harm done to our economy, and to taxpayers, is simply too stupendous to calculate.

Why is there no outrage? In fact, we experience the antithesis of outrage: we vote the bums back in, election cycle after election cycle. Each political party, all candidates, every year promise more of what any blind man can see does not work.

There is a simple cure (it will never happen, though). No person who receives a government check should be allowed to vote. Government employees, program beneficiaries, contractors or lobbyists should never be able to vote for a politician who has the ability to promise a financial benefit paid for with other peoples money. This is bribery in its simplest form.

Since it will never happen, how about this for a dose of common sense: Simply vote for the politician promising the smallest government. The idea that the government can successfully nationalize oil companies, or manage our medical system is ludicrous. There is no evidence that government operated bureaucracies at any level will be examples of good operative governance.

Proponents of these hare brained schemes are too stupid to be entrusted with such power. They, and their acolytes, should simply be asked: “What have you ever successfully managed”? Common sense is in monumentally short supply when evaluating the real performance of local, state and national government agencies. To fund evermore waste, fraud and corruption flies in the face of everything that we empirically know actually goes on in this cesspool.

Henry Ford’s Invention Inadvertently Caused the Depression

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

by: Geoff Ficke

In early 20th century America the vast majority of people living in rural areas eked out a living in agriculture. Farms were small, often sharecropped. The planting and harvesting was labor intensive and horses provided the only source of energy for mechanized tilling. The vagaries of weather and drought have always made farming difficult. Crops were mainly grown for consumption by the farmer’s family, with any extra produce bartered for needed goods.

We are all aware of the history of Henry Ford and his invention of the production line to mass-produce Model-T’s. Ford did not invent the automobile, he simply invented a method to produce cars in mass volumes and make them available for virtually anyone wishing to purchase a horse-less carriage. He also revolutionized the agriculture business with totally unforeseen consequences.

The Ford Motor Company was always seeking new avenues of distribution and business opportunities. Ford had grown up in then-rural Michigan and was immersed in the farm world of the age. In the 1920’s Ford introduced the first mass-produced farm tractor, the Fordson. The machine sold for under $400 and revolutionized farming. It quickly became cheaper and less costly to own and maintain a Fordson tractor than a horse.

Farmers quickly gravitated to the Fordson tractor. Crop yield per acre expanded exponentially. Farmers produced so much crop yield per acre that by the middle of the 1920’s we were growing far more food than the country could consume. Prices plummeted. The need for day laborers declined precipitously and rural unemployment exploded.

The collapse of crop prices, unemployment, and the Great Plains drought were significant contributors to the start of the Great Depression. The Fordson was an amazing improvement in the productivity and ability of farmers to lead more comfortable lifestyles. However, the “Law of Unintended Consequences” reared its ugly head in this instance. The creative disruption caused by this product was thrust on a market that could not adjust efficiently or quickly to its significance.

We have a seemingly similar situation occurring today. We constantly read headlines about the dying manufacturing sector in the United States. Politicians love to visit deserted factories and decry the decline of manufacturing in a wide range of formerly profitable industries. And yet, manufacturing in America is setting records for volumes produced, shipped and invoiced. How can this dichotomy exist?

As with the Fordson tractors 1920’s introduction to farmers, today’s manufacturing has evolved dramatically and created disruptive technologies. Robots, software, customized computer models, computer assisted design and modern communications mean that we produce ever more sophisticated products, in greater volumes, and at lower prices, while needing fewer workers per unit of production. The workers that are needed today require better education, and skills than the production line workers of yore.

When I was growing up in an industrial area of America in the 1960’s many of my contemporaries went to work with their fathers at the local mill or factory. These were overwhelmingly union jobs. Each of my buddies at that time thought they would be employed for life like their fathers had been. It has worked out that none are where they started, not one.

The displacement is as painful today as it was on the farm of the 1920’s. However, the benefits to society accruing from modern manufacturing technologies and systems, just like the advances in farming owing to mechanization, cannot be denied. Only the Luddites of the 19th century and there modern adherents believe life is not more comfortable today and more people have more access to more goods and services at lower prices that at any time in history.

Change is hard and often inconvenient. We live during an age of massive change unlike any time in history. The understanding of and acceptance of modern realities insure that most people will benefit from advances in technology. Those that do not want to change and accept the new order of things will be left behind.

Henry Ford did not sell the Fordson tractor to instigate the Great Depression. The product was a small, inadvertent contributing factor. The inability of markets of that day to allocate resources and find markets for the massive increases in crops harvested was a systemic failure. Today, we manufacture products that are consumed quickly and create the thirst for more inventions and technologically advances. We are all better off as a result.

Eric Hoffer: The Obstacles We Face Daily Present Our Greatest Opportunities

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

by: Geoff Ficke

As a young, struggling college student in the 1960’s I became entranced with the life, philosophy and writings of the great American thinker Eric Hoffer. Hoffer’s life story was almost mystical, his thinking so lucid and the concepts he presented were so fresh that I could not get enough of this great mans ideas. Only now do I fully realize how my adherence, to the thoughts of Mr. Hoffer have positively affected my professional life to this very day.

Eric Hoffer was born in Germany. His family immigrated to America when he was a toddler. He could read English and German fluently by the age of five. His earliest years were spent in poverty, living in tenements in New York City. He lost his sight at the age of seven after a fall that ultimately took the life of his mother. Inexplicably, at the age of 15 his sight returned.

This gift of the return of his eyesight stoked a voracious desire in Hoffer to read everything he could lay his hands on. He was completely without formal education and yet he was one of the most studied, learned men of the 2oth century.

Hoffer spent most of his life living in farm camps in California, working as a longshoreman and finally in a one room flat in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. His first book, “The True Believer”, was an immediate classic and stamped him as a most original thinker. “The True Believer” is Hoffer’s observations on mass movements and fanaticism. Nazism, Communism, socialism, and early religious movements were topics that this classic book examined and critiqued with scrupulous research and poignant observations.

Owing to a life lived mostly in poverty; Hoffer’s comments on the human condition are particularly astute. Hoffer’s life was full of obstacles: blindness, loss of his parents at an early age, growing up in a new country without access to education, a lifetime of manual labor and subsistence wages. And yet, this self-educated man has left an indelible mark on all that have read his writings and consider his brilliant thoughts on a wide range of cultural, philosophical and political topics.

As a student reading “The True Believer”, I did not realize the lasting effect it would have on my life. Hoffer observed that the struggle to survive, at its most elemental, offered the best promise of a lifetime of fulfillment. The man who must work, must harvest, must create is most satisfied. Man with plenty has too much time too reflect, regret and criticize.

I have been a serial entrepreneur all of my working life. Currently I work with small businesses, inventors, and entrepreneur’s to commercialize new product ideas. Each of these individuals and company’s possess an unintended compliance with one of Eric Hoffer’s most prescient observations: “It still holds true that man is most uniquely human when he turns obstacles into opportunities”.

Every time a new technology, product or service is commercially successful an opportunity has overcome an obstacle that the inventor has identified, analyzed and conquered. The world becomes a bit more comfortable, more beautiful, healthier, or a bit safer as a result. It is hard wired into all successful entrepreneur’s that there are answers to problems that others can not identify or address.

For the last 40 years, I have read and re-read “The True Believer” more times than I can count. I don’t think there is another book that I have ever fully re-read. Each time I pick up this amazing work I learn something new, fresh perspectives and concepts that I can apply to my personal and professional life.

Obstacles represent opportunity. Identifying problems and needs is the first step necessary to providing answers that commercially benefit consumers. As Eric Hoffer so correctly observed, we are “most uniquely human when we turn obstacles into opportunities”.

If you would like to discuss a new business concept visit my website at to learn more about the services we offer inventors, entrepreneurs, startups and small businesses or call Geoff Ficke at 859-567-1609.

Aztec Innovation That Still Sweetens Our Taste-Buds and Outlasted the Conquistador’s

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

by: Geoff Ficke

Any reflective student of history is often amazed at the products and processes invented and discovered in the ancient world that we take for granted today. Paint, gunpowder, weaponry, cement, the arch, beer, silk, papyrus, champagne, and so many others remain at the center of modern society and commerce in one form or another. Two of the most interesting ancient inventions are among the most popular consumer products of modern times, chewing gum and chocolate.

Chocolate was first harvested and converted into a consumable drink by the Aztec’s in Mexico. Before the Aztec’s, the cacao bean was considered a nuisance plant that neither animals or humans would eat. Tough, bitter, hard, and inedible, cacao was the plant seemingly least likely to have an upside commercial destiny.

The Aztec’s took the cacao bean and blended the meat of the plant with peppers, cane and various liquids to form a drink that was consumed vigorously as a luxury tonic. The cultivation of cacao became a significant industry in Mexico and the beans actually represented a type of currency that facilitated trade.

When Hernando Cortes conquered Mexico, he and his Spanish conquistador’s were repulsed by the taste of the cacao spirit drink that the Aztec’s consumed in such large quantities. They spit it out and written accounts refer to their disgust at the drinks harsh, bitter taste. However, through experimentation, they found that by removing the pablano peppers and other Mexican herbs and substituting pure sugar the combination produced a sweet, savory foodstuff that was consumable as a drink or a candy.

The undesirable cacao bean had found it’s initial commercial niche. Plant specimens were transported back to Spain and soon the popularity of chocolate spread across Europe. Planting of cacao trees spread across parts of Africa and Asia as demand increased and plantations were required to produce cacao in huge quantities.

The Aztec’s likewise are central to the discovery and commercialization of chewing gum. In remote parts of southern Mexico, trees release a type of sap called chicle. The Aztec’s harvested this chicle resin and developed a chewable paste that could be imbued with herbs, sweets and flavors. For hundreds of years the use of chicle as a forerunner of modern chewing gum was common throughout Mexico and parts of Central America.

Hernando Cortes however did not just conquer the Aztec’s. He obliterated their society and culture. The southern source of chicle was unknown to the Spanish and thus lost for centuries. In 1870, Thomas Adams, exploring in Mexico’s southern-most jungle rediscovered the ancient chicle resin. Soon after, William Wrigley found the source and the first chewing gum war soon commenced.

Adam’s most famous brand of chewing gum was Chiclettes. Wrigley launched the Juicy Fruit and Spearmint brands. Both were very successful, though Wrigley came to be a towering beacon of Chicago commercial and social life. The Company he founded, in addition to the eponymous Wrigley Building and Wrigley Field, has seared the name Wrigley as one of America’s great brands.

Inadvertently, the search for new sources of chicle in Southern Mexico has lead to the discovery of many ancient Aztec and Mayan cities that the jungle had devoured. To this day archaeologists are diligently working, and discovering lost tombs, pyramids and ruins that might have never been brought from beneath the jungle’s grasp without the commercial desirability of chicle acting as the apex prod for exploration.

The Conquistador’s were not interested in foodstuffs. They were lustily seeking gold, silver, jewels and mineral wealth. However, after plundering Mexico and Central and South America of all the booty they could pilfer and transferring this haul to Spain they never recognized the real treasures they had discovered.

Many types of grains, vegetables and fruits were introduced to Europe and the world as a result of the rapaciousness of the Spanish Conquistador’s. These unintended side effects of the Spanish invasion of the New World were, at that time, considered tertiary benefits of the conquests. Certainly, the exportation of chocolate and chewing gum has provided the modern world with several of life’s most appreciated and satisfying products.

Cadbury, Nestle, Mars and Hershey are international behemoth brands that provide sinful delicacy and enjoyment to humankind at amazingly affordable pricing. Hundreds of enterprises, large and small, all over the world produce amazing confections based on the Aztec discoveries of chicle and chocolate. Today, we are the beneficiaries of the Aztec genius for taking unwanted forest by-products and converting them to wondrous concoctions that make our mouths salivate and tongue’s quiver with delight.

The Aztec legacy would be great even without the treasured gifts of chewing gum and chocolate. But when I watch a child eat chocolate ice cream, or a Snickers bar, or blow bubble gum bubbles, I know the world is a happier place as a result of this ancient genius.

In my marketing consulting company, Duquesa Marketing, we review hundreds of new product concepts, ideas and inventions from entrepreneurs and inventors each year. If you have a business concept you would like to discuss, I can be reached at 859-567-1609 or